Where does the sound come from?

Edited: October 8, 2018, 2:55 AM · I found a very interesting comment from luthier James Robinson in his "advertisement" Choosing Your Next Instrument (on page 59 of Stringendo Journal of the Australian Strings Association, Vol 40, Number 2, October 2018):

"Don't be too influenced by a salesperson that plays it for you, remember the sound you hear comes mostly from the player not the instrument."

This could sit on the same page in my notebook as gems, like, "With everything we play, our first concern is tone production ..."; and, "If you think you need a new instrument, have your teacher play your current one to you, before you buy ..."

All very difficult stuff to swallow, especially when I am told the true tone you make is heard at least four metres away, out in front of you.

Ah well, that is why these string things are fun. I think. Maybe.

Replies (9)

Edited: October 8, 2018, 4:27 AM · This forum is difficult, as there are professionals and there are amateurs, and you don't know who's who, but pros don't "choose their next instrument" so often, so I guess this question is aimed at amateurs.

It's complicated, and it's every instrument type, not just strings. In a way the quote is silly, as the saleperson at least should be showing you the instrument's potential. There's the tone that an instrument is capable of, and there's the tone that its owner is capable of getting from it. And there's personality which is unique to every musician (especially to singers, unfortunately for my singing).
I had the world's cheapest plastic oboe when I was a teenager and was told a couple of times that I had better tone than some professionals. If that was true, then it is quite possible that students never achieve what their instrument is capable of before they upgrade. I've seen plenty of guitarists who think the instrument automatically makes the noise and all the student has to do is pay the money. I'm not saying buy cheap - there are other factors, such as playability. I'm waffling and I'm no longer sure I understand the question. The quote, is it good or bad? Both. The question, where does the sound come from? It comes from you.

October 8, 2018, 4:46 AM · Is "salespeople" playing violins in front of customers a thing? I have never noticed it, only ever been left in a room with a bunch of instruments in the right price range and told to let them know when I had some thoughts
October 8, 2018, 5:54 AM · I'd say your first two quotations are spot on although I'd dispute the third. The problem I find when auditioning instruments is that they all tend to come out sounding like me (especially if I record the results). To be complimented on the sound of my violin I find quite insulting - that was me making that tone! Over the years I've spent far more time practising tone, intonation and phrasing than just getting more and faster notes under my fingers. Nobody wants to hear a violinist with a lousy tone, no matter how stupendous their technique.

Entirely consistent with the above, to judge a violin by the sound your teacher makes on it seems quite wrong, although it can be instructive to hear what your own violin is capable of in other hands.

Edited: October 8, 2018, 11:31 AM · Someone once gave Keith Richards a cheap guitar to see what he would sound like without all the electronic equipment, expensive guitars, and so forth. Well, Keith Richards sounded like Keith Richards. He couldn't help it. That was that. I have a feeling if he were a violinist he'd sound like Keith Richards playing a violin. (Let's pause for a moment and think of a world with The Rolling Stones String Quintet...........) You may not have an expensive violin, but then again, you can't always get what you want. What you do have is your sound. That sound is in you.
October 8, 2018, 10:16 AM · Parents assisting my lessons would notice that when I tried my student's "student" violin (a) it sounded better than when the student played on it, and (b) it still sounded less good than my own violin.

No one can make a poor violin sound good, but one can play in a way that makes folk forget about the actual tone and listen to the playing!

Edited: October 8, 2018, 11:23 AM · There are really a bunch of different types of people buying violins, though some advice is applicable across all categories:
  1. Total beginners
  2. Student violin upgrades
  3. Upgrade to the first professional-quality violin
  4. Upgrades to better professional violins

The first two categories -- and often the third, too -- involve players who may lack the technical proficiency to fully test what a violin is capable of doing, and where teacher involvement is absolutely necessary.

Some in the third category, and certainly (hopefully) everyone in the fourth category can make selections themselves, but probably benefit from the advice and input of other players nevertheless.

We all sound like ourselves no matter what we play on, and we all tend to have a certain physical approach to an instrument. Having another skilled player play the violin can sometimes show you things that it can do that you might not have otherwise been aware of. It can also make mismatches between your approach and the violin pretty clear. This is important because if your technique evolves, you may need a different violin.

Edited: October 8, 2018, 12:20 PM · From my experience more expressive players will always look for different colors of sound and for the fine nuances, and these are usually proficient players and soloists. Players with less experience usually gravitate towards instruments that are brighter under the ear. So it is what feels comfortable for you at the level you are at. However, if you are more interested in what the violin actually sounds like, I would suggest you find a reasonably sized hall and get a really good player to join you and go and listen to him or her play from the back of the hall, and you might be amazed how different a violin sounds from a distance. This might help you decide when choosing your next instrument.
October 8, 2018, 3:48 PM · I've thought about this subject in great detail, partially because it's so hard to choose an instrument based only on how it sounds under your own ear, knowing very well that violins sound differently from the 3rd party perspective than they do to you, the player.

Here's the conclusion I've come to: most of the sound does indeed come from the player (assuming we're only comparing good-quality instruments here), but the player *responds* differently to different violins. Every violin has a particular feel, a particular warmth, depth, penetration, *bite*, etc... And so even if the audience wouldn't normally notice much difference in tones between any two good violins, they WILL notice how differently the player plays a certain instrument.

If a player loves the way the violin feels and sounds, they will be able to play more romantically. If they feel that the violin "fights" them or "bites" well, they may feel more validated in aggressive attacks during passages that require that.


So in summary, my belief is that the player makes the sound, but the violin helps the player make the sound, mainly from a psychological standpoint. Therefore, how the violin sounds/feels to the *player* is actually more important than how it sounds to the *audience*.

I also think this is true of any skill level. For example, if a beginner plays best on a certain violin, they should choose that violin, because it will carry them to the next level of violin in the fastest way. Yes, they will "Grow out of it" quickly, but in my opinion that's kind of the point. Get the violin that makes you feel that you play the best on *right now*, and it will carry you to the next violin faster.

As a beginner, trying to choose a violin based on what you might eventually need is the wrong move, in my opinion (and I'm sure many here would disagree with this assessment).

Edited: October 9, 2018, 9:53 AM · Indeed the player makes the sound, but he or she can only "take" what the instrument has to give. I have two very different violas: one has a "mezzo" quality (for Mozart?), the other is a plummy contralto (for Brahms?). My playing adapts to each, especially at the start of each note and in the speed of vibrato, but I have similar phrasing and accentuation on either viola.

In a workshop session, we exchanged violins while a blindfold member guessed who was playing what: she usually guessed correctly both player and violin..

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